OSU Opera & Lyrics Theatre presents never-before-performed “Indianist” opera

Charles Wakefield Cadman's opera “Ramala” is teeming with betrayal, sadness, war and death. A love triangle is at the heart of the work.

“It's the ultimate opera story, with all the tropes,” said A. Scott Parry, Director of Opera & Lyric Theatre at Ohio State University.

And yet “Ramala” is a never-published, never-produced work written 100 or so years ago by an American composer during a time when the nation was emerging as a player on the world scene and yet struggling to define itself culturally.

OSU's presentation of “Ramala” will touch on all of this context in a lecture and concert in Weigel Auditorium on Wednesday, Nov. 1. Scenes from the opera will be presented in a lightly staged manner, interspersed with a lecture and projections by OSU musicologist Katie Graber.

“We don't even know how the characters' names are pronounced,” Graber said of the unpublished work, which is set entirely in a Native American village belonging to the Omaha people. “In several places there are slight differences in the text between the libretto and the notes on the handwritten score. There are sections where the instrumental and vocal parts are duplicated except for a note here and there.”

“We are really piecing this thing together,” Parry said.

Cadman was a composer who had work performed at the Metropolitan Opera when, in 1908, an anthropologist named Francis LaFlesche approached him to write an opera based on LaFlesche's study of the Omaha tribe. In addition to being a published operatic composer, Cadman had recently written two popular songs based on “Indian” themes, part of a budding and short-lived “Indianist” movement.

“Cadman was one of those who wanted to come up with a truly American music, and [incorporating Native music] was one of the ways they thought they could do that, to tap into that essence,” Graber said. “There was a big idea about what music could do for the nation.”

Graber said that American composers were often subject to criticism that their work sounded too German or too French, for example. Cadman clearly believed that incorporating Native American culture and its musical forms into his work was an avenue toward a truer “American” music. Seen through a modern prism of respect versus appropriation, this practice presents some difficult questions.

“They were looking for inspiration in a culture with which they were unfamiliar,” Graber said. “In some sense, there was a respect for these cultures, and in some sense there was an idea that, ‘I can do this better. I can civilize it and make it palatable.' It's certainly more palatable than people who just wanted the [Native American people] to go away, [believing] that the music was just completely barbaric and not worth trying to share.”

Parry said that the music of “Ramala” reflects this uncertain approach, oftentimes employing a more European style to reflect more positive topics and emotions and inserting the Native American musical ideas when the story gets tense and stressful.

While there are no writings by Cadman suggesting this was purposeful, Graber said, “he definitely has the idea that the Native American music is more barbaric.” Yet, the “Ramala” score calls for Native American flute and drums alongside traditional orchestral instrumentation. Cadman later did a tour in which he discussed and performed “Indianist” music with the help of a female Native American singer.

“It's a fine line,” Graber said of the question of cultural appropriation, adding that, for anthropologist LaFlesche, the purpose of the opera was “that he wanted people to learn about this culture through a format with which they were familiar.”

Parry said the performing arts serve as a way to bring communities together, both in the intersection of cultures and the exchange of ideas about those intersections.

“The performing arts is ephemeral. It happens in a space between the people who are there,” he said. “In America, we're all about this clash and mix and combining of things. That's the melting pot ideal.”

“It's impossible to make rules [regarding appropriation] because it's all about intent and the attitude and you have to examine this on a case-by-case basis,” Graber said. “The important thing is it makes us think about all of these things, to wrestle with these questions of American identity. Who gets to be American? Who is remembered as creating these different things?”

These are questions that are fundamentally relevant given the current cultural and political climate, Parry added, and even indirectly asking those questions via the arts “allows us to look at them in a more personal way than just, ‘Where do my political ideals lie?'”

“Art has always been so ingrained into these questions of ‘Who is American?' and ‘Who belongs here?' and ‘What do we think about another group because of how they are portrayed in culture?'” Graber said. “The law might say this person or that person is allowed citizenship, but through arts and culture you experience it in a different way. It's absolutely relevant today.”

That these questions are being asked via the world premiere presentation of a 100-year-old opera that's never been produced feels like something that could only happen in America.